We know that the act of copyrighting your work is a way to protect against others using that work without your permission—but all copyright registrations expire. What if you want to use a work that has previously been registered with the US Copyright Office? How can you tell when a copyright on a previously registered work is no longer valid?Assuming the work has been registered with the US Copyright Office, the answer to this varies based on the circumstances of the original registration—specifically, which Copyright Act the registration falls under based on the year in which the registration took place. Copyright law is complex, but there are a few basic rules that you can use as a guide.
With some exceptions, you are free to use a work without obtaining permission in the following situations:
- The work has been published prior to 1923.
- The work has been published between 1923 and 1963, and the copyright registration was not renewed.
- The work was published before 1978, but there was no copyright symbol or notice present on the work.
- The work was published between 1978 and March 1st, 1989, there was no copyright symbol or notice present on the work initially, and the author did not include one within 5 years of publication.
- The author has included a statement on the work that he or she is dedicating the work to the public domain.
Of course, the first step is determining whether or not the work was copyrighted in the first place; anyone can do a free internet search of the USCO’s public catalog, which includes all registrations from 1978 to the present.
[Recommended Reading: “Do I Need a Copyright Symbol?“]